Fontana & Zorn


A part of CFHILL's Ten by Ten, 2018


Lucio Fontana
“Concetto Spaziale, Attese”
Watercolour on canvas
26 x 19 cm
Signed l. Fontana and with title on verso.

Sotheby’s “Contemporary Art”, London 27 June 1996, lot. no. 175.
Private collection, Sweden (acquired from the above).


In the early days of the last century, Picasso and Malevich both independently came up with a sensational idea: A canvas is no place for illusions, it simply is what it is, and this means that art and the artist are free, for all eternity. It has no ties to reality, but it does represent an absolute zero of sorts–or a virginal starting point–to its creator. Fifty years later, the Italian made a radical addition to–or rather, assault on–their idea. The canvas may be just a canvas, but no human being, not even an artist, can ever be fully free. With a brutal slash of a scalpel, he slices up the thing that was previously considered untouchable. In the aftermath of the Second World War, particularly in Milan, where his studio had been razed to the ground, this became the only feasible way out for Fontana. Human existence depends on a conditional brand of freedom, littered with cuts that reach into the darkness. Concetto spaziale, i.e., the concept of space. Humankind had proven to be capable of wonders when it came to beauty and technological innovation, but our progress is ruthless, beautiful, and self-destructive.

The painting glows fiery red, and has a single, vertical cut. A dark, vibrating note from a stringed instrument lingers on, its wavelength resounding off into the depths of eternity. The format of the work is modest, but its ambitions are overwhelming. The year after he executed this painting, he was about to have his first exhibition in the US, at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. His first museum exhibition in the USA was at the Walker Art Center in 1966. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of his passing. Fontana’s works are included in some of the finest museum collections in the world.

Lucio Fontana was born in Argentina in 1899, and passed on in 1968, one year before man first landed on the moon. However, he was around to experience the first successful orbit of the Earth by a manned craft, which took 90 minutes to complete. Yuri Gagarin’s orbital journey made a great impression, of course.

Anders Zorn
Läsande flicka (“Reading Girl”)
Oil on canvas
85 x 56 cm

Stockholm, auction, spring of 1987
Privately owned

Gerda Boëthius in 1916

There is something very modern about this painting by Zorn from 1916. The subject is a familiar one for the artist: a nude young woman with her hair tied up, who is busy doing something that you wouldn’t often do in the nude in real life. She’s sitting on a Dante chair, a dark seat with no backrest that was popular in the late 1800s. She’s sunken down in it, and we’re viewing her from straight ahead, with virtually no foreshortening, and she’s holding an open book in her hands that seems to be holding her interest. After we’ve made these observations, our attention is caught by something else, something beyond the unsurprising subject. It’s the treatment of the skin, the way the white brush strokes produce an illusion of glossy highlights. The body feels warm, moist, and very much alive. It’s placed before a starkly contrasting background, a surface that is an explosion of rough, almost expressionistic, brush strokes.

The effect of this collision is too powerful to be a coincidence. Anders Zorn wasn’t just a master of technique, he was also an astute observer of what was happening in the field of art. If you were to remove the red-headed model, we would be in a Munchian or Strindbergian landscape, twisting and turning with despair and excessive expressiveness. This side of Zorn is not often mentioned, and he never made any extensive explorations of the modern movements–he remained faithful to the ideals of the 19th century. However, he must have experienced the power of the contrast between living depiction and pure painting first hand. These are qualities that would be taken to their extreme by artists like Lucien Freud in years to come.